Barbie box office bonanza can’t hide the stark wage gap faced by women

Katherine ScottBarbie is the movie hit of the summer. By mid-September, box office returns had exceeded $1.4 billion worldwide – and that doesn’t even account for the revenue from the countless licensing deals Mattel has signed, from Airbnb to Xbox. The company is laughing all the way to the bank, but women aren’t.

Indeed, the movie depicts Barbie Land as a feminist paradise where the supreme court justices, president, and all leading professionals are women. In the real world, women do not run things and don’t earn an equal wage.

Women have broken into most occupations since the Barbie doll was introduced six decades ago, but they remain the minority in many of the high-paying roles we see in the movie. In Canada, only three women made the top 100 CEO list in 2021.

barbie women wage gap

Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

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Sixty years ago, women engaged in the paid labour market were concentrated in traditionally “female” occupations, such as teaching, bookkeeping, and nursing. Not much has changed in the intervening years. In 2021, the majority of women (54 percent) were employed in just 20 occupations, all involving the “5 Cs”: caring, clerical, catering, cashiering, and cleaning. By contrast, just 19 percent of men were employed in the top “female” occupations.

This follows a pattern: Women breaking into male-majority fields tend to be congregated in particular areas that are seen as inherently or essentially female. For instance, only one in 10 women populate the C-suite, and most are in charge of human resources or the legal department.

The fact that comparatively few women work in the high-paying jobs depicted in the movie is one of the primary drivers of the gender wage gap, which harms all women over the course of their lives, especially those confronting large barriers to employment.

While the few women who do work in non-traditional jobs are typically earning more than other women, they, too, generally earn less than their male peers. Female general practitioners working full-time, full-year, earn just 86 cents for every $1 earned by male GPs, while women lawyers earn just 84 cents on the male dollar.

In fact, women up and down the earnings ladder experience pay gaps, reflecting entrenched systemic bias, the unequal burden of care and outright discrimination.

Simply put, women’s work isn’t valued as highly as men’s. The work done by marginalized women workers is valued even less.

Racialized female lawyers working full-time, full-year, make 69 percent of what non-racialized male lawyers make. Racialized female cleaners make 85 percent of non-racialized male cleaners. Highly gender-segregated labour markets depress wages for all women, but most especially, the earnings of marginalized women.

Barbie has always been positioned as aspirational. All girls can achieve their economic dreams (and unattainable body ideal) by the dint of their hard work and scope of ambition.

But “non-traditional” Barbies are in the clear minority, even today. Fashion models, retail workers of various sorts, and teachers appear time and again. Cheerleaders, flight attendants, actresses and singers too.

Mattel has long understood, and reaped the benefits of, cleaving to the status quo. This film does not challenge, or question, the power relations at the heart of women’s economic subordination.

If you see the movie, consider all that’s being debated when we talk about Barbie. And consider what’s really needed to improve the quality of women’s jobs and their earnings, particularly for the most marginalized.

Katherine Scott is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and serves as its director of gender equality and public policy work.

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